Extreme recycling: Making worm wine from food scraps

July 10, 2012

Lisa Perez never expected her Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) degree to lead her to an office permeated with the stench of rotting food while something trademarked “Worm Wine” was being brewed.

Earlier this year she became involved in a vermiculture experiment that uses earthworms to convert food wastes into rich, black compost at a steamy South Phoenix warehouse. Food scraps are emulsified into a liquid food -- Worm Wine -- to keep the worms well fed and hydrated while they create compost in specially designed tubes called soks.

Perez calls it “extreme recycling” because it helps businesses such as would-be green restaurants and resorts find a way to reuse table scraps that up until now they have not been able to recycle, bringing them closer to producing zero landfill wastes. And the resulting compost in turn could be used to grow more food. Perez said growers seeking organic compost and chefs seeking organic foods have already shown an interest.

In January, Perez and the creator of this process, Miguel Jardine, formed a business alliance to commercialize the process. They are close to going into production and plan to build out the warehouse and process up to 18 tons of food a day into Worm Wine.

Perez was once an Air Force jet mechanic who worked on F-15s and later became an information technology expert. She found her way to the food scrap business through serendipity: an unexpected call from the National Basketball Association.

When the NBA calls, you listen

Perez prototyped her document- shredding company, AzDocushred, while working on the applied project that is part of the MSIM program. Business process design and analysis, data security and business intelligence are topics taught in the MSIM. Students form teams early in the program, then apply the concepts they are learning about to their project.

After getting her degree in 2007, Perez used the experience and knowledge she gained doing her project to create a real company under the same name. She had also become a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and had previous experience managing information technology projects for several firms.

Despite starting the document shredding business at an inopportune time – the recession officially started in December 2007 -- Perez was able to build it up to 25 clients.

“I ran that business and grew it in a climate that was economically very difficult. I grew it for several years to a point where it was stable and in the black. It was working," she said. "I got to the point where I needed to invest a lot of money to get it to the next level. So I was at a cross roads.”

Enter the NBA, which in early 2009 was lining up local vendors for its 58th All-Star Game to be held in Phoenix that February. Someone from the organization saw that Perez was promoting AzDocushred as a zero-landfill company online and called to ask what she did for food scraps. In truth she had never considered handling food scraps.

“Now I am thinking, ‘This is the NBA. Their checks don’t usually bounce.’ I said, ‘You know what, let me get back to you’.”

And she did, after she and her business partner, Chris Garcia, figured out they could collect food scraps along with a standard mix of recyclables and donate the food to local pig farmers. Perez credits her IT background and especially the MSIM with giving her the confidence and ability to so quickly consider a new line of business.

As a result, AzDocushred landed a contract to handle all recycling for the NBA event, including the food scraps left over by more than 40,000 people who attended events that week. They only had to add extra bins where patrons could toss their left over hot dogs, popcorn and other consumables.

About that time, Perez and Garcia determined that the document shredding business was fairly saturated but no one was addressing the re-use of food wastes. So they sold the document shredding business and in 2009 started a comprehensive recycling company, Global Green Integrators, to capture and recycle not only traditional plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, glass beverage bottles and other recyclables, but also food scraps, including smelly meat. Clients have included some large conventions, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild 2009 conference at which former Vice President Al Gore was the main speaker, a recent church convention and a Scottsdale resort.

Opportunities abound. “Now more resorts and hospitality industry businesses, restaurants and events, are under mandates by their owners or corporate headquarters to get greener,” Perez said.

Turning food wastes into compost

Fruits and vegetables can be composted, but not meat, because it attracts bugs, flies, maggots and other unsavory creatures and bacteria. As a result, grocery stores and other businesses have had little reason to recycle food scraps.

But several months ago Perez learned that Jardine, a Thunderbird School of Global Management graduate, had developed a way to reuse food scraps. Jardine starts with coco peat (ground up coconut fibers) and stuffs it into black mesh "soks" that are about three feet long and eight inches in diameter. Worms are put into the tubes and fed Worm Wine, and after six months the coco peat is converted into rich black compost.

Jardine’s company is called VermiSoks. Vermiculture typically can require a year or longer for worms to break down all the food stuffs, but, Jardine said, he learned to speed up the process by emulsifying the food.

“If you throw an apple core at an earthworm, it will take some time to break that down. But if you throw apple sauce or apple juice at an earthworm, that thing basically disappears in a day,” he said.

Jardine calls his process a “virtuous cycle” because the compost created from scrap food can be used to grow new food.

As for bacteria, such as E.Coli, that could be present in the meat, Jardine and Perez said earthworms are well known to eliminate such contaminants. They expect that the compost can eventually be certified as organic because no pesticides are used.

Jardine credits Perez with giving him the operational expertise to get his company running and also for providing the scrap food he needs through her company. Perez is so enthused about the vermiculture project that she closed her mid-town Phoenix office and moved into the Vermisoks warehouse in South Phoenix. Outside the old steel building is a demonstration garden where plants are growing in the soks.

Monitoring everything

Perez uses technology to monitor how much waste and what type of waste is gathered at certain locations. As a result she has determined that about 14 to 22 percent of the waste from a typical resort or event are food scraps.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who have no idea the volume of food scraps going out the door," Perez said. "You have to pay for it (food) to be ordered, pay for it to be prepared, pay for it to be delivered or served, and then you have to pay for it to go out the door and to the landfill."

With that data as leverage, Perez approaches event planners and resort managers to use a company like VermiSoks to reuse those scraps.

“Now for the first time we have a comprehensive solution via VermiSoks to offer a cost neutral or revenue source for their food wastes. This has never happened before,” Perez said.

Monitoring and data gathering is also key if a company decides to seek organic and food safety certifications. “Any (organic) certifying entity is going to want to say ‘Tell me what you do and show me how you do it.’ They want to be able to see the trail for how you did it,” she said.

Food inspectors also want documentation on every step so that in case a problem develops-- a bacteria outbreak, for example -- the source could be identified. Tests so far show that the worms produce a very clean product, Perez said.

Aiming for triple bottom line

Perez and Jardine said they are aiming for a triple bottom line, with a focus on producing social, financial and environmental benefits.

The social benefits include any jobs created. Also, because the soks can be used to grow crops almost anywhere -- even in parking lots -- they offer possibilities for increased organic farming, and they offer an alternative to trying to grow produce in tough desert caliche. In this photo, plants are growing in VermiSoks in a garden outside of the company's South Phoenix facility.

The financial and environmental bottom lines encompass the businesses that can become greener and more sustainable by participating in the virtuous cycle. Their scraps can be used to create compost that could in turn be used to grow truly organic produce. Or the organic compost could be sold to organic growers.

Jardine said “We are looking to bring together a coalition of folks -- waste producers and especially restaurants and resorts -- that will collect wastes, liquefy it, feed the soks and then grow food into it that goes back to restaurants or hotels.

“This is the main objective, to tie together everybody so the solution can really scale and be sustainable.”

Photo: Lisa Perez visits a kitchen at FireSky Resort in Scottsdale -- one of the recycling clients that is now recycling food waste thanks to the services of Perez' company, Global Green Integrators. (Photo by Andrew Farquhar)